Case Study: Law Enforcement Standard of Care in Criminal Investigations

Police SUVThe public holds law enforcement agencies to the highest levels of accountability by emphasizing rigorous investigative standards of care, police practice and procedures, ethical conduct, and integrity. While these general practices vary by jurisdiction, there are general principles and standards that are commonly followed. In criminal investigations, maintaining high standards is vital to ensuring investigations are conducted in a fair, legal, and effective manner. A departure from well-established standards can easily result in a miscarriage of justice, as seen in the following case investigated by ESI Law Enforcement Expert Dan Saban.

Case Study

The criminal case out of Ohio involved a drug deal gone wrong, which resulted in a murder. The defendant (21 years old) was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001. After 21 years of public records requests and court filings, the appellate court overturned the murder conviction in December 2022, and the defendant was released. Early in 2023, the state chose to recharge the defendant and scheduled him to go on trial in July 2023.   

There were multiple law enforcement standard of care failures in the initial criminal investigation, such as:

Interview and Interrogation

Separating Witnesses: The area where the drug transaction was taking place at the time of the murder was a well-known high-crime area, and a majority of the witnesses were of questionable character. The responding officers did not take the time to separate the witnesses and allowed them to co-mingle before being interviewed, which led to obvious witness bias. 

Identifying/Interviewing Witnesses: During the initial investigation at the scene, a variety of potentially critical witnesses were identified and never interviewed and/or followed up with. 

Persons of Interest: Two individuals were identified by the eyewitnesses as very credible persons of interest, which were never followed up on as the investigators' focus in this case was solely on the defendant. 

When interviewing witnesses or suspects, it is crucial that officers follow proper protocol to avoid bias, coercion, intimidation, or any form of abuse that may skew the integrity or outcome of the investigation. 

Evidence Collection and Preservation

Identifying potential trace evidence and/or possible DNA: The murder victim's clothing was never submitted for forensic examination for possible trace evidence. Additionally, two possible vehicles were identified as potentially being involved in the crime and were only photographed but never submitted for forensic examination for possible trace evidence and/or DNA.

Lineups (live & photo): The lineup processes used in this investigation were tainted by investigators' comments and the pressure they applied to the witnesses to select the defendant.  

Procedures for collecting and preserving evidence remain a vital part of criminal investigations. Officers must follow established protocols to maintain the integrity of evidence since viable and accurate evidence can lead to establishing guilt or innocence, reconstructing a crime scene, and maintaining due process, amongst other things. 

Dan Saban's extensive investigative background was pivotal in unraveling the intricacies of this case. His wealth of experience allowed him to methodically navigate the standard of care investigative failures, revealing glaring shortcomings in the initial investigation. These deficiencies resulted in a profound lack of confidence in the investigation and materials presented to the prosecution, which ultimately exonerated the defendant.

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